Let’s send 'pay-for-play' to the bench - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Let’s send 'pay-for-play' to the bench

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Mark J. Scarp is a contributing columnist for the Tribune. Reach him at mscarp1@cox.net.

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Posted: Sunday, September 18, 2011 1:00 pm | Updated: 1:20 pm, Sun Sep 18, 2011.

In yet another sign that there isn't enough money anymore to pay for something, parents of children in Mesa Unified School District high schools who want to participate in extracurricular athletics now are charged a $100-per-sport fee that has come to be known as "pay-for-play."

As the Tribune's Michelle Reese reported Friday, the district has allowed waivers for students in families with demonstrable financial hardships, and about 20 percent of families have received them.

Of course, that cuts into the budgetary savings the fees were designed to create. And at least the Mesa school board is talking about these fees being temporary until better economic times return.

Still, is putting this on the backs of parents, that is, those who don't ask for the waiver, really the solution?

At first blush, having to pay any amount over your property taxes for your son or daughter for anything offered by a public school seems downright unfair. As it is, a typical taxpayer's tax bill for public education is about 10 times higher than what he or she pays City Hall for all the usual city services such as police, fire, libraries, parks and recreation, streets and so on.

We all remember our own childhoods, in tough economic times and out, where it cost nothing extra to be a member of an athletic team. But this hasn't been an ordinary recession. State and local budgets for the past few years have been starved for revenue that has plummeted and will remain low for some time.

That's why it's understandable that, rather than shut down high school athletics or pick which sports should stay and which should go, Mesa schools officials instituted the fee. At least administratively it is a fairly simple fix: School board votes, schools start collection, students still play.

Instead of deciding which sports stay or go, however, the district finds itself in the waiver business. Nobody is asking parents to take a means test to get one. But already one of every five has. If enough apply, the district is not saving that much.

(The Arizona Department of Revenue website states that individuals can claim a tax credit for contributing to or paying fees to public schools for extracurricular activities, but many parents, especially many who would apply for waivers, do not itemize deductions on their tax forms.)

Instead, what about raising the money privately?

A community committee could be formed, consisting of parents, yes, but local business and civic leaders whose task would be to raise the money. Such committees are formed every time a district asks voters to approve budget overrides or to sell bonds. How about one for raising money for high school sports?

School sports are very big in Mesa and the rest of the East Valley, home to some of the best high school athletes in Arizona. And they comprise a much more colorful and easily identified component of our public schools than bond and override needs, which despite their necessity involve complicated financial descriptions not often completely understood by residents.

We're talking about just shy of 3,000 student-athletes in the district, which means a $300,000 annual fund-raising drive in a city of nearly 500,000 people. School districts can create foundations - Scottsdale has one - that accept donations for educational purposes on behalf of schools, with the benefit of tax deductibility for such donations.

Times are equally tough for the business community, of course. But with a potential tax deduction coming for those who donate, it might make such an effort easier. Such business donors might receive free advertising at athletic events and programs. Getting a tax deduction and an audience of families in the prime of their consuming lives might be attractive.

And as much as some educators and parents squirm about advertising on campus, it's nothing new: School newspapers and yearbooks have featured advertising for decades, of course, just as they have been found in the pages of programs for fine arts performances such as plays and band, orchestra and choir concerts.

This idea isn't a knock against the Mesa district. Its governing board members and administrators valiantly worked out a short-term solution that kept every young person who wants to play, playing. So we're set for this year.

But district officials have to agree that once implemented, like so-called one-time taxes, one-time fees tend to become permanent as there's always another use for the revenue once it starts rolling in again.

Now, let's move on to a permanent district-wide solution, an expansion on what private athletic-booster groups already do so well on a per-school basis.

Let's make pay-for-play a one-year-only.

Mark J. Scarp is a contributing columnist for the Tribune. Reach him at mscarp1@cox.net.

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